State Sen. Mike Gabbard switched political
parties yesterday and became a Democrat, explaining that he
believes he can be more effective to his constituents as part
of the majority in the Senate.
"It took a lot of soul-searching," Gabbard, D-19th
(Kapolei, Makakilo, Waikele), said at an afternoon news conference
at Democratic Party of Hawai'i headquarters, where he was flanked
by his wife, Carol, his family, and party, Senate and labor
Gabbard's switch leaves four Republicans in the Senate compared
to 21 Democrats.
Gabbard, who gained prominence as an opponent of same-sex marriage
in the 1990s, described himself as a social conservative who
disagrees with the party's platform in favor of civil unions
and abortion rights. But the senator is with the party on labor
and environmental issues and said he fits within its big-tent
"There are obviously some things we don't see eye to eye
on," Gabbard acknowledged, adding that he would continue
to be independent and not always follow the party line on votes.
Word of Gabbard's possible switch had caused an internal debate
over what the party stands for and how much elected Democrats
are expected to follow its platform. Many gay and progressive
activists vividly remember Gabbard's often polarizing role in
the campaign that led to a constitutional amendment against
same-sex marriage in 1998.
Gabbard met privately with about 20 party activists on Saturday
afternoon at party headquarters for what was described as a
respectful but pointed discussion. According to several people
who attended, Gabbard apologized if he had ever offended or
caused pain to anyone by his comments in the heat of political
Gabbard was questioned not only about same-sex marriage, according
to participants, but of his past support for President Bush,
his opposition to abortion rights, his thoughts on equal rights
for women, and his religious affiliation.
Some activists were not satisfied. "Prejudice is not fit
for any political party," said Doug Pyle, the co-chair
of the party's legislation committee.
Mike McCartney, the party's chairman, said the reaction to Gabbard's
switch within the party has been mixed. But the state senator
was treated warmly yesterday by McCartney, U.S. Sen. Daniel
Akaka, state Senate President Colleen Hanabusa, D-21st (Nanakuli,
Makaha), and state Sen. Norman Sakamoto, D-15th (Waimalu, Airport,
Gabbard's daughter, Tulsi Gabbard Tamayo, is a former Democratic
state representative and a Washington, D.C., aide to Akaka.
Akaka said the party accepted Gabbard with a "spirit of
"The Hawai'i Democratic Party has never turned people away,"
McCartney said. "It goes back to the plantation days. We're
Gabbard served on the City Council and ran unsuccessfully as
a Republican for U.S. Congress against Ed Case in 2004. He was
elected to the Senate last year.
During his first session, Gabbard was more likely than other
Republicans to vote with Democrats and went with the majority
party on some key overrides of Gov. Linda Lingle's vetoes.
Lingle, according to a spokesman, believes Gabbard has done
a disservice to the people who voted for him and supported him
as a Republican by switching parties in the middle of his four-year
term. The Republican governor also believes it is another example
of the need for a strong two-party system so that Republicans
do not think they have to become Democrats to get bills heard
or to be effective.
State Senate Minority Leader Fred Hemmings, R-25th (Kailua,
Waimanalo, Hawai'i Kai), said Gabbard had left to join a party
Hemmings believes has not improved public education or diversified
the economy despite being in power for a half-century.
"The political landscape is littered with those who thought
they would become more politically effective by joining the
Democratic Party," Hemmings said. "And what they've
become effective at is maintaining a stranglehold on a political
Hanabusa, who is trying to manage competing factions of Senate
Democrats, described Gabbard as an asset as a Republican last
session and said she was proud to welcome him to the party.
She joked that she and Sakamoto were wondering when he would
"We don't know what took you so long," Hanabusa told